Containing the suspense and plot-twists of a Hollywood movie of the 1950s, Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Venice Silver Lion-winning film Wife of a Spy puts the focus on the torn loyalties of a demure Japanese wife – whose country’s fortunes, and her husband’s convictions, are about to change significantly.
One of the interesting things about director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s work in recent years is that you never quite know which direction he’s going to go, and so the anticipation of a new film from him is always fun.
Wife of a Spy is a departure from some of the more chilling aspects of his previous work, yet retains an air of suspense and mystery throughout.
It’s also Kurosawa’s first-period piece and is set in 1940 in the Japanese city of Kobe, shortly before Japan entered World War II. The costuming, sets, and time period, combined with the thriller and potential espionage storyline, join to deliver a beautifully-looking, twistily-plotted story reminiscent of classical Hollywood. And amid this keep-you-on-your-toes storytelling, Kurosawa also makes space to acknowledge some of the war crimes perpetrated by Japan during World War II.
Yusaku (Issey Takahashi) is a local fabric merchant and amateur filmmaker, living in a beautiful home and happily married to his wife Satoko (Yû Aoi). While her husband is away on a business trip to Manchuria, Satoko encounters Yasuharu (Masahiro Higashide), a childhood friend and now a military policeman. It’s clear that Yasuharu supports Japan’s nationalism and strengthening connections with Germany and Italy, whereas Yusaku senses that Japan’s actions are not going to have positive outcomes for the country. But when her husband returns from his trip he appears changed, and Satoko is torn between remaining loyal to her husband and his beliefs, and accepting what Yasuharu has told her.
The film’s title indicates that the story will be told from Satoko’s point of view, and so the suspense is sustained throughout as, like her, the viewer does not know who to believe either. The ground shifts constantly but not exasperatingly, and it’s not for nothing that a chess board is a frequent item on display. Beginning as the demure and compliant wife, Yû Aoi’s Satoko gradually weighs up the information at her disposal and reaches a decision. Once she has done so, she is unshakeable in her conviction, and events tumble to an unexpected and open-ended conclusion. It’s established early on via her husband’s amateur movie-making that Satoko is a good actress, but Yû Aoi is magnetic, consistently driving the plot forward as she evaluates her situation and makes her choice.
Kurosawa’s film is only a little about espionage, definitely about Japan’s failings in World War II, but mostly about loyalty and truth – whether that be national or marital. A period piece may be a departure for the Japanese director, but he has not lost his connection with tension and suspense.